John Lavin casts a critical eye over Lawrence of Belgravia, the documentary portrait of Lawrence, the musician behind Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart.
Lawrence, the erstwhile singer in Felt and Denim, has always cut a contradictory figure. The quintessential indie aesthete who dreams of huge, 1980s-style mega-stardom (‘the day I never have to use public transport again is the day I’ll be happy’) whilst bloody-mindedly continuing with his current project: the terminally unpopular ‘worlds first B-side band’, Go-Kart Mozart. A kind, gentle-seeming man who will sacrifice any friendship – and in the shape of his best friend, original Felt bassist Nick Gibert, he has done just that – for the good of the band. A man who knows how to hold a grudge, and who once wrote a letter so vengeful to John Peel (admittedly after Peel had declared Felt’s debut LP Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty as being in possession of the worst album title of all time) that the much loved DJ still recalled it with something akin to shock shortly before his death. (When he is told about this midway through the film, Lawrence has to try very hard not to look delighted. ‘And this was just before he died?’ he asks a second time; a look that unmistakably says ‘job well done’ lighting up his face.)
So to say that Lawrence of Belgravia perfectly captures the enigma that is Lawrence is to pay tribute to Paul Kelly, who in his first full-length feature has made one of the great rock documentaries. It concentrates on the eight years since the last Go-Kart Mozart album; the non-more ironically titled Tearing Up the Album Chart. Kelly had initially imagined the film would take a year to make but this was to reckon without his subject matter going missing for months at a time, living in constant fear of eviction (at the beginning of the film Lawrence actually is evicted) and there being zero financial backing for a third Go-Kart Mozart album.
Lawrence’s mental health problems and heroin addiction are only ever alluded to in a collage about halfway through the film but there can be little doubt of the toll they have exerted both upon the man and his creativity; this is someone, after all, who released ten albums and ten singles in ten years with Felt. The Lawrence of those years always cut a deeply stylish figure, excelling in perfect, art rock haircuts. By contrast, the Lawrence we meet in this film appears ashen and drawn, his long, greasy hair topped off by an equally greasy and ever present, baseball cap (there are times, alas, when he calls to mind Andy Serkis playing Gollum.)
If all of this sounds depressing then it both is and it isn’t. When I first saw the film at Chapter late last year, the general consensus of the audience in the following Q&A with Paul Kelly seemed to be that the film was a tragi-comic documentary about a deluded, failed pop star; with Lawrence cast as a kind of real life, indie David Brent. This was clearly to miss the point – Lawrence is a very important artist who has made some of the most important records of the eighties and early nineties. What is sad about the film is Lawrence’s continuing lack of recognition and the hand to mouth life he is living as a result; at one particularly heartbreaking moment in the film he sells his famous ‘Felt’ emblazoned guitar for £600.
Then again you have to suspect that Lawrence’s own self-sabotaging hand is at least partly behind the decision for there to be almost solely Go-Kart Mozart music in the film. While there is a lot to be admired in his single-minded dedication to the music he is making now – not least when so many of his peers are trading on past glories – there can be little doubt that Go-Kart Mozart, for all their wittiness and occasional pop perfection, will never beguile a large audience. Judged on this level the film seems to miss an opportunity to introduce Lawrence’s best work to a wider audience. When Denim’s – and arguably Lawrence’s – masterpiece, ‘The Osmonds’, finally begins to ring out over widescreen shots of his hometown of Birmingham, it is such a fantastic moment of pop art that it is almost impossible not to feel moved, both by Kelly’s inspired combination of sound and image and by the thought that, although held in high critical esteem, this ridiculously brilliant song remains more or less unheard.
However, neither Kelly nor Lawrence were interested in making a standard rock retrospective; they wanted to make a portrait of Lawrence, the artist, today. (At the Q&A Kelly suggested that Richard Olivier’s intensely revealing Remember Marvin Gaye documentary, about the singers time in Ostend, was a touchstone.) And the music of Go-Kart Mozart, in many ways, sums that up. If these are Lawrence’s b-side years then yes, here is the soundtrack. Horrible keyboards play perfect pop melodies. The studio sound is lo-fi but clearly not meant to be. The lyrics are frequently witty, erudite, strange and perverse. Hearing a song like ‘Listening to Marmalade’ – with its central narrative about ageing paedophile roadies – (sample lyric: ‘You turn on a PC/ The future is displayed/ It’s little kids with no knickers on/ And they’re/ Uh-huh/ They’re all getting laid/ Listening to Marmalade’) booming out of cinema speakers is a bizarre experience worthy of the admission price alone.
Indeed there are many bizarre/comic moments in the film; the one that particularly stayed with me being the sight of a skeletal Lawrence, in a skinny-fit Denim t-shirt, poking his head around the door of a studio where a children’s choir have been singing some choice Go-Kart lyrics. ‘I think we need to do another take,’ he drawls, his face a vivid illustration of the clash between his kindness and his artistic impatience.
Lawrence of Belgravia is a film made up of such apparent contradictions. Paul Kelly has given us a portrait of a forgotten genius, which for all its downbeat moments, is both hilarious and inspiring. As Lawrence says at one point, ‘no one has ever gone this far without making it.’ It may even be that this film changes all that.